A review of the factors that contributed to the high attrition rates among science and engineering undergraduate majors. ( Abstracted from the overview section of the book Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science and Engineering Undergraduate Majors.)
Author(s): Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour
The authors found that switchers and non-switchers from Science and Engineering majors are not very different in their character or ability. For example, the switchers do not have more conceptual difficulties with science and mathematics or less inclination to work hard than the non-switchers. Instead, the most common reasons for switching arose from a set of problems encountered by both switchers and non-switchers. However, the non-switchers were more likely to use a variety of strategies to tolerate or surmount the problems encountered. The study provides quotations from students regarding their departure or their friends' departure from S&E majors.
The survey results note that a greater proportion of the problems described by switchers arose from structural and cultural sources rather than problems of personal inadequacy. The former include:
Other common problems reported by both switchers and non-switchers are:
However, it is noted that a percentage of non-switching seniors reported two of these structurally-derived problems more often than switchers. These were:
This is true because those who struggle to continue must deal with these problems throughout their college careers in these majors.
The factors that contribute to most decisions to switch majors support the theory that a certain percentage of attrition is "appropriate". In other words, there is a proportion of freshmen who enter S&E majors with insufficient interest in the subject matter or in the career options implied. As a result, they leave the major when they discover they have made a mistake. Of the switchers, 91.8% said that their original choice of an S&E major was based on considerations which proved to be inappropriate.
However, it is alarming to note that 26.1% of non-switching seniors spoke of dissatisfaction with their overall educational experience. Another 23.9% were unhappy about the career options implied by their majors. But the most alarming observation is that 38.6% complained they had become "turned off science" during four or five years in their majors. About 9.5% had seriously thought about switching majors, but they felt they had too much invested to do so.
One difference between switchers and non-switchers was in how the latter found ways to deal with some of the problems that they shared with the former. Non-switchers seemed to cope better with feelings of discouragement and lowered self-esteem caused by the sudden and unexpected drop in freshman grades, when they had been used to getting top grades in high school. They learned to tolerate the uncomfortable feeling that they could "never know enough". They judged themselves more by their own level of comprehension than by the actual letter grade they received. Non-switchers have also learned to bypass individual competition through group study and mutual support, while many switchers tried to struggle on by themselves.
In this study, factors such as poor laboratory facilities, poor support by "domestic" teaching assistants, and language difficulties with foreign faculty and T.A.s were never mentioned as important in switching decisions. Hewitt and Seymour found little support for four widely cited but untested theories of attrition. The most notable was the absence of support for the idea that those who leave science and engineering lack the ability, effort, character, or application necessary to complete an S&E major.
Other reasons for switching into a non-S&E major are categorized as "system-playing". Some students declared a science major but intended to leave or had left it because completing an S&E major would undermine their chances of entering a professional school of their choice (usually medical, dental, or veterinary). They stayed in science to get the science prerequisites and shifted to a social science or business major to improve their G.P.A.s.
The decision to switch by science and mathematics switchers was more strongly influenced by:
However, engineering switchers were influenced more by:
Discovering an aptitude for a non-S&E subject made it more likely for engineers to switch than for math or science majors.
Non-switchers proved to be an accurate source of information about what causes attrition from their major. The exception appeared when non-switchers missed reasons for rejecting career paths/associated lifestyles of S&E majors or neglected to consider positive reasons for switching.
--Abstract by the Online Ethics Center staff.
Original book by Nancy M. Hewitt and Elaine Seymour.